When a commercial publisher rejected Dr. Francisco Jiménez’s first book manuscript, he knew better than to second guess the merits of his story.
He submitted his manuscript to an academic press, securing a contract he says was standard for scholars at the time — no advance money.
Published in 1997 by the University of New Mexico Press, The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child has sold more than 200,000 copies in paperback.
Jiménez, the Fay Boyle Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures at Santa Clara University, long believed he could engage a mainstream audience. But he never fathomed such high readership figures when he shopped The Circuit. “I simply wanted my work to find a home.”
University presses are more likely to give voice to stories that might not otherwise be told, such as those involving minority perspectives. But opportunities are shrinking.
As extensions of their parent schools, academic presses rarely reap profits, experts say. Many rely on school subsidies to survive. Factor in substantial budget cuts to education in many states recently, with schools downsizing a variety of programs in response, and that leaves some presses pinched — or even out of business.
The 30-year-old Eastern Washington University Press will close in June. It was once a full-range house devoted to environmental topics, Asia, short fiction and literature in translation. Staff members are fulfilling remaining contracts, which include next February’s release of Modern Poetry of Pakistan, an anthology representing 40 writers and financed in part by a $75,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant.
“It’s a sad loss, but our ultimate obligation is to educate our students,” says EWU provost Dr. John Mason.
The number of academic presses that have died this year or are on life support isn’t known because such reporting is voluntary, according to the American Association of University Presses, which includes EWU among its 133 members. What is more widely agreed upon among individual presses is that the recession worsened their often-precarious financial health, an instability caused by a consistent diet of producing books across all genres yielding low returns.
Around the country, those who oversee university presses hold a gamut of opinions as to whether books about race and ethnicity are necessarily financial risks.
“Financial challenges affect all ethnic-specific presses, due to the nature of niche markets,” says Dr. Alvin Thornton, interim provost at Howard University. He adds, however, commercial publishers often poach their academic cousins for authors who, like Jiménez, produce work that sells well. Howard’s press, which focuses on the contributions and concerns of African-Americans, is not presently soliciting new titles.
Meanwhile, UNM Press has not suffered more financial difficulties than its mainstream counterparts around the country, says Dr. Wynn Goering, vice provost for academic affairs. Nonetheless this past spring, the 80-year-old press, which specializes in areas such as Chicano/a studies and Latino and American Indian literature, laid off about 10 percent of its work force amid an operating deficit of more than $700,000. The press now produces a maximum 70 new titles annually, compared with 90 about four years ago. Goering says such cuts typify scholarly publishing everywhere this year.
Interestingly, Jiménez recalls how a UNM staff member once thanked him “for paying their bills,” because sales of The Circuit were strong.
The autobiographical book is a collection of 12 short stories based on the migrant farm-worker life of Jiménez, who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1940s as a young boy with his parents and older brother. The stories, penned from a child’s point of view, describe the backbreaking toils of the family as they picked crops throughout California. With themes of hard labor, loneliness and isolation, the book has been translated into Korean, Japanese and Chinese.
The Circuit shares its name with a short story Jiménez originally published in an academic journal in 1973 as a newly hired assistant professor of modern languages at Santa Clara. The short story became widely anthologized in Mexican-American literature.
Urged on by fans, Jiménez decided in 1995 to write an entire collection of stories that could become a book. “So many students and other people contacted me over the years, encouraging me to write more. My story was the story of many families in this country. Readers were telling me that my work made them feel less alone. Some readers said their attitude about immigration changed.”
Because of warm audience reception to Jiménez’s first book, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt commissioned him to publish two more autobiographies, Breaking Through and Reaching Out. The middle book of the trilogy, published in 2001, has sold more than 200,000 copies. Reaching Out, which was published last year, has won literary awards from the American Library Association and other organizations.
But because few books authored by scholars ever generate significant profits for their publishers, it has become harder for junior faculty to secure a contract of any kind. For instance, only about two of the 30 new books issued annually by the University of Houston-based Arte Público Press have been written by faculty who haven’t yet earned tenure, says press director Dr. Nicolás Kanellos.
“There’s a terrible squeeze going on that is probably going to worsen,” says Kanellos, the Brown Foundation Professor of Hispanic Literature at UH. “The idea of a book, a monograph, is becoming more and more antiquated.”
He and others worry that too often tenure and promotion decisions still hinge on a faculty member having produced a traditional book and that digital scholarship still hasn’t gained equal respect.
Some are more optimistic though. Dr. Rosemary Feal, Modern Language Association (MLA) executive director, says surveys of young faculty indicate academic committees take their online publishing seriously. With more than 30,000 members, the MLA represents English and foreign language and literature teachers.
“It’s a relief to know that tenure committees are evaluating the context in which work is produced as well as the content of the work,” Feal says. “I don’t think they’re fetishizing the monograph.”
Back in the world of paper and binding, UNM’s Goering describes a highly speculative business crutch: every five years or so, the state of New Mexico requires new history textbooks for its high schools, meaning UNM Press has landed lucrative contracts that partially compensated for operating losses in other years.
“But if the state can’t afford to fund that new textbook,” Goering says, “what does that mean for us? I’m finding a version of our situation is extant among many institutions.”
He cites the UNM Press sale of movie rights to The Education of Little Tree — a once critically acclaimed but now discredited book about a boy raised by his Cherokee grandparents — as an example of “a cash cow that can get us through some tough times when we’re losing money on everything else.”
Such financial extremes have added fuel to the ongoing debate over online publishing. And in fact, digital business has helped Arte Público, for instance, weather the recession because it has commercialized its holdings of historically significant newspapers, magazines and other documents. Digital entities such as Readex, which publishes primary source research materials in college libraries, have licensing deals with Arte Público, which nearly 20 years ago began its “Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage” project. Under the project, Arte Público locates, identifies, preserves and makes publicly accessible the literary contributions of U.S. Latinos from colonial times through 1960, shortly before the ethnic studies movement was born.
“With our endowments currently under water, the financial returns on our electronic documentation program come at an important time,” Kanellos says.
Elsewhere, some struggling university presses are exploring the formation of consortiums for publishing or distribution. The latter are alternatives that were already tapped before the recession. Slated for closure in 2004, Northeastern University Press ended up joining University Press of New England (UPNE), based at Dartmouth College.
Such a cooperative arrangement remains a possibility for EWU and UNM, officials say.
“We would gladly consider an alternative press, such as something online or in collaboration with other entities, as long as there is a financial proposal that looks realistic, that looks as if the press could support itself,” EWU’s Mason says. “But we’re in no position to continue subsidizing a press that’s in the hole $400,000 a year.”
Jiménez is now discussing an autobiography with Houghton Mifflin that would recount his journey as a Columbia University graduate student. While he acknowledges that university presses must generate self-sustaining income, he hopes they continue publishing the stories of minority cultures.
“There is still too huge a gap in literature,” he says. “Our children must see themselves and their life stories in literature.”